Dec. 4, 2009

Blogging Again

The Bhikkhuni Controversy

On Oct. 22nd 2009 at Wat Bodhinyana Monastery in Australia the ordination of four bhikkhunis was performed under the auspices of the abbot, Ajahn Brahmavamso who participated as chanting acariya. This was the first time that women were given the higher ordination in a branch monastery of the Ajahn Chah tradition. The act was done unilaterally by Ajahn Brahmavamso without the approval of the hierarchy or the greater sangha. It immediately opened up a very troublesome and divisive controversy. The elders of the tradition in Thailand called a meeting on Nov.1 to which Ajahn Brahmavamso was requested to attend. The result of that meeting was the expulsion of Ajahn Brahmavamso, and Bodhinyana, from the Wat Pa Pong group of monasteries.

There is now a great deal of chatter in various Buddhist corners of the internet regarding this series of events. Some harsh things are being said, and there is not always a full understanding of all the complex issues involved.

To begin with first principles; gender is irrelevant as far as realization of the Unconditioned is concerned. Men and women alike are enmeshed in samsaric suffering caused by their cravings and played out by their kamma, and the path out to liberation is the same for both. That being said, these lofty ideas may be cold comfort when the actual history of Buddhist institutions has not been fully supportive of women's aspirations.

(The next few paragraphs deal with the historical background, if you are already familiar with this information you can skip on ahead)

The problem in Theravada is that the women's order, established by the Buddha, died out completely at an early date. At that time, the Theravada school was pretty much entirely limited to Sri Lanka and after a disastrous war was nearly lost altogether. The male order of bhikkhus just barely survived, the female order did not fare even so well as that. When the Theravada spread in a later time to South-East Asia it came with the male order only. So Thailand and Burma have never known bhikkhunis. (This is an important point to remember.)

Indeed, for about two thousand years there were no Theravada bhikkhunis anywhere in the world. However, female monastics did survive in one lineage from Northern India, the Dharmaguptika, which was another of the original eighteen schools, more or less co-eval with the Theravada. In the peregrinations of later history, this lineage found its way to China and became the Vinaya foundation for the Mahayana schools. Many thousand of Mahayana bhikkshunis in East Asia, especially in Taiwan, hold this Dharmaguptika ordination at the present time.

About a quarter century ago a movement began to re-instate the bhikkhuni lineage in Theravada using the nuns of the Dharmaguptika tradition to perform the initial ordinations. This has had some success in Sri Lanka where there are now several hundred bhikkhunis.

About the same time, the western branches of the Wat Pah Pong tradition established the ten-precept siladhara order as a compromise to improve the opportunities for women without taking on the then very radical step of re-instating full ordination. It should be remembered that this was, at the time, a very progressive step in itself.

Here is an important historical and cultural difference between Sri Lanka and Thailand. Sri Lanka has a cultural memory of bhikkhunis; every school-child has seen pictures of the nun Sanghamitta bringing the cutting of the Bodhi Tree to the island standing in the prow of a dragon boat. No such cultural memory exists in Thailand, where the whole idea of female monastics must seem a strange importation from the Mahayana.

(End of historical background, back to the current controversy)

With this background, I'd like to consider the current controversy. There are many aspects of this; the issue of gender equality, the technical issues of Vinaya, the real concerns about respect for tradition and sangha harmony and not least, the question of skill in means.

Reading many of the comments by lay-people on various internet fora, it seems that many (not all but many) people cannot see anything more than the first issue, that of gender equality. Not to minimize the importance of that by any means, but it is far from being the only consideration. To read some of the comments, it seems that some people believe this is a simple case of men wanting to control the power and oppress women. I sincerely believe that is a very simplistic and actually wrong reading of the situation.

If we believe, (as I do) that women are the spiritual equals of men, and further that bhikkhuni ordination is, in theory, a positive development the very next question must be, is it even possible according to Vinaya? This is a very complicated issue with lots of controversial minutiae and it seems to get more complicated the more you look into it. I will not attempt to do that here; if you want to get a taste you can read Bhikkhu Bodhi's article given in the links which follow this post. Suffice it to say that this has been argued back and forth now for twenty or thirty years and the consensus seems to be emerging among those who have taken the time to go back to the texts that it is legal and possible. There seems to be no good reason to reject the validity of the Dharmaguptika Vinaya lineage. The Theravada-Mahayana split does not really come into it; the Vinaya lineage is a separate thing altogether from schools of interpretation of Dhamma.

Nevertheless, bhikkhuni ordination is far from being universally accepted in Theravada and there are plenty of Vinaya conservatives even in Sri Lanka who maintain that these ordinations are not legal. I do not think they are ultimately correct, but there arguments are not without some cogency. Vinaya is a very complex and legalistic subject and there will always be controversies of interpretation.

The anti-bhikkhuni arguments are not based on some putative idea of the inferiority of women. Rather, they reject the legitimacy of the Dharmaguptika continuity. If there is any prejudice involved, I think it is more likely to be a religious one; a rejection of anything tainted by the Mahayana "heresy."

Even if we cross the first hurdle and accept the legality of bhikkhuni ordination, there remains the concern for tradition and hierarchy that is at the core of the Theravada generally and the Thai Forest Tradition especially. The Theravada is a tradition that has survived intact for twenty five centuries, it is literally "the school of the elders." We have a very great reverence for the teachings and ways of practice that have been passed down to us from our spiritual fore-fathers. The whole tradition is very resistant to change. This may from time to time prove problematic, as perhaps in the present situation. But in the long run it has proven our especial strength.

It pains me to read some of the comments which portray the Thai elders as some kind of misogynistic patriarchy. I honestly believe that gender issues as we understand them in the West do not enter into it at all for the Thai elders. Their primary consideration, I think, is the preservation of the purity of Ajahn Chah's tradition against outside influences.

Consider it from their point of view. Thailand has never had bhikkhunis. The issue of full ordination for women, a lively one in the west and in Sri Lanka, has just barely began to register among the Bangkok intelligentsia. It was not even on the radar as a distant blip for the monks in Isan until the news came out of the blue that one of the western branch monasteries had performed a bhikkhuni ordination. This was their worst fears coming true, some weird Mahayana ideas infiltrating the remoter branches and beginning the corruption of the pristine tradition. They felt they had no choice but to sever the infected limb before the disease spread.

They may be wrong about the legitimacy of bhikkhuni ordination, mostly because they have never seriously examined the issue, but the Thai elders are not motivated by what we in the West would call sexism. These are very devoted monks, with a great love and respect for the traditions of their lineage and a strong motivation to keep it intact.

The western elders, for their part, are put in a very difficult position. Even if, as many do, they may support the idea of bhikkhuni ordination in theory, they also feel that reverence for tradition and wish at all costs to keep on good terms with the Thai hierarchy. They are caught between the pressure of their own laity, many of whom don't see beyond the first point about gender equality, and the Thai elders, who take their stand on continuity of tradition.

This brings up the final point, about skill in means. Even if we agree that bhikkhuni ordination is legitimate, and further that incorporating it into the Ajahn Chah tradition would be a positive development we can still question the wisdom of this particular act, at this particular time.

The bhikkhuni ordination at Bodhinyana was performed on Oct 22. The World Abbot's Meeting had been scheduled for Dec 8, with Bodhinyana acting as host. The preparations for the ordination were made in secrecy, it only being publicly announced two weeks or so ahead of time.

Why perform an unauthorized act, which even if valid in itself, would inevitably cause great disharmony and controversy? I don't like to be put in the position of criticizing a monk senior to myself, but I cannot see the wisdom in the way Ajahn Brahmavamso proceeded.

Especially when you consider that it wasn't at all necessary to proceed in this way. He could have waited until the WAM (which had the issue of female ordination on the agenda anyway) and brought forward his proposal to begin bhikkhuni ordinations for the discussion of the assembled elders. If, as is quite possible, no agreement could be had, if Ajahn Brahmavamso still felt that this was the right way to proceed he could then have respectfully resigned from the Wat Pah Pong group and announced that he was going his own way. Surely this would have been better than acting in a rebellious fashion and getting himself expelled! It would have at the very least moved the issue onto the front-burner in a respectful and harmonious fashion. Instead, there is a big painful controversy and attitudes against female ordination have hardened.

In all the letters and statements that have been published on this issue, I have yet to see from Ajahn Brahmavamso or anyone in his camp a clear and cogent explanation of why these ordinations needed to happen before the World Abbot's Meeting. I do not want to speculate on his reasoning; I do wish he would come out clearly and speak to this point.

In conclusion, it is to be hoped that all parties interested in this issue will try and take a broad view and look a little more deeply into the complex issues involved. More light and less heat, please.


Revival of Bhikkhuni Ordination - essay by Bhikkhu Bodhi examining the Vinaya issues
Timeline and History - from DhammaWiki
Bhikkhsuni Ordination in Tibetan traditon - very similar issues involved
Summary of Public Statements - from all sides, very good reference
My article from 2000 - a simpler time perhaps? for historical reference
Sujato's Blog - a blog by one of Ajahn Brahm's key supporters
Women and the Forest Sangha - Facebook page by supporters of the ordination